“I feel like it’s better to be judged on the spirit of your book, rather than trying to account for every single word.”
Some metaphorical dogs:
Bernese Mountain Dogs
Small, baseball patterned bandana-wearing bulldogs
Un-Australian Australian shepherds
A few years ago, at a party thrown in Manhattan, a friend introduced me to Lexi Freiman. It was winter, and everyone wore black, except for Lexi, who wore a sleeveless, vintage white lace dress I envied tremendously. We spoke about the things you tend to speak about upon meeting other Australian writers living in New York—how you came to be here, how long since you’ve left home, which visa, which city, which school. We established that she had moved to America three years before me, and we were both from Sydney, but I am from the gentrifying western suburbs, and she from the leafy east. Over the years, I ran into Lexi at other parties, and she was always wearing something that I envied.
This year, Lexi published her debut novel, Inappropriation, a satire of identity politics, which takes place at a Sydney private girls’ school. Ziggy has transferred from a Jewish school and has to make friends. She falls in with girls who have become wayward disciples of Donna Haraway and the Cyborg Manifesto, girls who insist on the “correct” kind of language and thought, who run through the tunnel beneath Central Station accusing every passing man of committing “eye rape,” belligerent and forthright socialist feminists, whose feminism has been stripped of any of the hallmarks of socialism. I read Inappropriation a week after its release, and the night that I finished I sat at a bar with a friend, fumbling any attempt at articulating my thoughts about it. “Smart,” I said, as if that were sufficient. “Engaged with theory,” I stressed, trying to evoke the feeling of being excited about ideas for the first time, before you’ve sat through seminars on Deleuze and longed to scream. “Australian,” I said, in a way that meant something particular, familiar, and tribal.
When Lexi and I sat down to talk about her book, she suggested we go to the dog run in Washington Square Park. It was an incredibly hot August afternoon, a day when the sweat rolls down the backs of your thighs as you stand waiting on subway platforms, and people start fights on the street. Neither of us owns a dog. In the park there is a sign when you enter through the gates, warning you of the trouble you’ll be in if you’re found malingering in the dog run without a dog to run. We chanced it. We found a bench, sat down, and commenced our observations.
I. Some Thoughts on the Projection of Psychic Pain
LEXI FREIMAN: This fixation with dogs is new. I was in a relationship recently where I was competing with dogs all the time. I thought my ex felt more comfortable cuddling his dogs than me, which was very complicated, psychologically. I was in this constant rivalry with his dogs, and I had some bad feelings towards them, even though I also loved them. And around that time I started frequenting dog runs because they felt like the best places on the Upper West Side to hang out. People were rude and dismissive nearly everywhere else on the Upper West side, but at the dog run, even though I wasn’t technically allowed in there, it was a good place to go. People have a little more humanity or something when they’re around animals. Oh, this one’s coming up to us. [A puppy approaches.] Hi! I was thinking today about why it’s easier to be charmed by dogs than it is with humans. I feel like the littlest thing can throw me off with people. It’s very hard to relate to people before you fully engage with them, whereas with a dog it’s instantaneous.
BLVR: I think it’s much easier to have affection for something that can’t talk back.
LF: Exactly, you’re not projecting any psychic pain onto them. They don’t stand in for your parents or whatever, they’re just pure beings.
BLVR: It’s a little like that book Donna Haraway wrote about how dogs might be a good guide for living ethically in ecological doom-times.
LF: I just started reading her newest book, Staying With The Trouble. She talks about how we have to form assemblages of critters. There’s a hormone she mentions that menopausal women use, which comes from the urine of horses. She asks us to be more conscious of the way that we’re all in this symbiotic relationship, all of us, as critters. I kept thinking about a menopausal woman who has a weird connection to a horse, although I know that’s not exactly what she means. I feel like it’s a trope maybe, that menopausal women like horses.
BLVR: I think that’s right. A couple of years ago a friend was telling me about how she was really into horses when she was younger. She tried to explain it to me, particularly the muck of the horse, and not caring about it, even wanting the muck. She said it wasn’t necessarily about possessing the horse. Sometimes you would identify as the horse, sometimes it was wanting to ride the horse, it was all very fluid and intense. It was like a preamble to sexuality, without being explicitly sexual. Because it was just hers.
LF: I love that. When we used to go on drives through the country I had to say, “I love you, my darling,” to every horse we passed. I guess it was a little girl’s feeling that horses were not just magic, but that there was a deeper, emotional connection. The idea of female muck is—well, it sounds controversial, I’m afraid to say anything about it—but I think it feels true. Oh, that’s something Donald Trump says. “Feels” true. But it makes a lot of sense to me. Similarly, bringing it back to my ex-boyfriend with the dogs, I interpreted some of that as a desire to not have too much contact with the muck of femaleness. Animal muck is okay, but not female muck. Sorry. There’s a humping dog, I have to watch it. Wow. Sorry. I suddenly felt embarrassed that I was interested in those two dogs having sex. Do you know about ecosexuality? It’s where people basically try to be sexually intimate with nature. They get really into soil, and stuff. The idea is that if you have strong emotional and sexual feelings for nature then you’ll want to save the planet. There’s moralistic reasoning behind it.
BLVR: But think of how awful people are to the people that they’re in love with.
LF: Exactly. But I think it’s similar to the way people are with their animals. You’re in a benevolent relationship where you have this thing, which is dependent on you. And it gives you those good feelings. I guess you can get that from nature if you’re really tuned in to leaves and branches. That’s my understanding of it.
BLVR: So it can be harnessed for good politics?
LF: Yeah. Because if it’s not harnessed for that then I think people just get anxious that there’s no utilitarian aspect to it.
BLVR: It’s very Protestant.
LF: Yeah, it’s all Protestant. That kind of morality is so Protestant, that’s why it’s so boring and annoying, and it’s hard to relate to people, so here we are at the dog run. Oh, I like this husky, although they’re quite vicious. I really want an Australian shepherd. It’s funny, you move to New York and you become obsessed with getting an Australian shepherd. I don’t even remember seeing them in Australia, I don’t think they really are Australian. Oh, there he goes again!
II. Jews Go to the Beach in Australia
BLVR: Do you still feel your Australianness? Because you’ve been here, what, almost ten years?
LF: Eight years. I think I feel less and less Australian, although obviously releasing a book set in Australia has made me feel more Australian. But I often forget that I have an accent or that anyone notices.
BLVR: Do you feel your accent come back when you talk to other Australians?
LF: Yeah, which I quite like.
BLVR: I can feel it in my throat.
LF: Is it an open throat? Oh my God! That dogs trying to get a blow job! Wow I’ve never seen that before, he was really humping his head. Amazing.
BLVR: Now he’s got a ball in his mouth so as to ward off the possibility of having to administer any more blowjobs.
LF: See, I’m so interested. Oh, that dog’s getting its arse washed.
[Small dog who was having his arse washed bounds up, jumps between the two of us, sits on microphone.]
OWNER: Oh no! I did just try and wash him.
LF: He’s fine, he’s a good boy. He didn’t wet me at all. Sorry, yeah. Eight years.
BLVR: Did you move here to go to Columbia?
LF: Yes, but I had always wanted to live here. Part of it was wanting to do an MFA and part of it was wanting to leave.
BLVR: I’m curious about why you decided to set the book in Australia and not here? I feel like I’m always writing about Australia, but that’s partly because I feel my nationality so keenly here. I’d have thought it must feel different if you feel less and less Australian.
LF: I just didn’t know the high school experience well enough here, and I didn’t want to spend time doubting the veracity of what I was writing when there’s so much self-doubt involved in writing anyway. The book is a little hyper-real, imaginatively, but I wanted to be exaggerating based on reality, not my idea of reality. It always seemed wisest to set it in Australia. In some ways I think that was good because it created a good distance for American readers, and the sense of a slightly surreal space. I remember Heidi Julavits, in a workshop in my first year at Columbia, being fascinated by the fact that Jews went to the beach in Australia. She said, “You have to write about that, that is so weird.” And I thought, why? I think I understand it a little better now, but there is something slightly off about Australia to Americans.
BLVR: Right, Americans find us weird, and vaguely exotic, but in a gentle way. There’s nothing threatening about Australia. And they’re so easily entertained by Australiana. It’s the conversational crutch I’ve developed since moving here. When I’m in a bind I pull out the spiders and the snakes and the sharks, or sultanas.
LF: Right, they say raisin.
BLVR: There’s capsicum.
BLVR: Right, all the stuff my mum gets distressed about now when she hears me speaking “like an American.”
LF: My plan B, if acting didn’t work out, was always writing. It’s every person’s worse nightmare, that their child wants to be an actor. Then when you start saying to your parents, “Well, I have a plan B, and it’s to be a writer,” they’re like, “you are a rotten child.” My dad’s a doctor so he said; “You need to go to university before you do any of this stuff.” He was right, and thank God I lived in his house and had to do what he said, because I wouldn’t have gone to university.
BLVR: I’ve never asked you about acting.
LF: Well it’s hard to know what’s interesting about it. I went to drama school straight out of high school, and then I started working for the Bell Shakespeare Company. I was with them for five years. The last year I did a Bell play was the year I applied for MFAs. Then I just quit, and moved here, and never acted again.
BLVR: Do you know why?
LF: I was much more interested and excited by writing. I was lucky to be working for Bell, but it still felt quite limited, it terms of what you could do there in your career. I’d had a couple of setbacks. I’d been up for a role for a Sydney Theatre Company thing and the other person got it—that had happened twice. I thought, “Maybe it’s a sign and I should just stop, because it’s so frustrating and I’m sick of feeling powerless, and I should focus on writing.” I think I was pretty anxious and unhappy as an actor. Although, now I think, oh, no, those were the happiest days of my life. Touring with that company and doing Shakespeare for coal miners in Port Hedland, a town full of men, with a healthy prostitution industry. It was really fun to hang out with a bunch of hilarious gay men and go out drinking. Yeah, they were definitely the best years of my life. But I decided that I wanted to do something more, and I think that’s a product of being young and ambitious. Now I’m getting older I don’t care as much, and I would love to tour for the Bell Shakespeare company. I think that would be great. I feel like that’s the thing about living in New York. You forget. You spend so much time striving. The city is full of very ambitious people. Even if they don’t believe it, they act like the most important thing is to get to the top of their field. They’re pursuing a dream, and there’s nothing wrong or bad about that, but it doesn’t feel like there’s a much balance in terms of the other things that constitute a life and a healthy consciousness. I don’t want it all to be work. Even if your work is as seemingly holistic as writing novels or being an artist, you still get caught up in proving something to people that is inherently illusory.
New York is not conducive to having a more holistic life. There’s not a lot of nature, and it’s a struggle for pretty basic things. Things that in a country like Australia you wouldn’t have to struggle for. I feel like you had the opposite experience, though. You came here and you felt good for the first time.
BLVR: Yeah, I think the difference is that I was very unhappy in the life I had in Sydney, and very half-formed when I left. When I moved here I felt like I came into myself. I cut ties with a lot of people after I moved, and now that I haven’t been home in nearly four years I’m in a strange position where I wonder now if all my ideas about Australia are just ideas.
LF: I felt exactly the same way. You move here and you have a new lease on life. Coming here young, you’re still developing your sense of self, and this is a good place to do it because you have anonymity. I also feel in some ways that there is a kind of stigma about coming here to do it. There’s definitely a feeling I get that’s like, “Oh, look at you, went off to New York.” I get it and it’s fine but it does feel like it would always be difficult to go back and establish some real common ground with people.
BLVR: That’s the thing, I definitely had a real, old-fashioned, cultural cringe for the longest time. I bought into all of that when I was a teenager. But at the same time I studied Australian literature at university, which is unusual—Australians don’t read Patrick White and Henry Handel Richardson the way Americans read Henry James and Willa Cather. I often feel like Americans will assume, after talking to me for a while, that most Australians have long, prolix opinions about, like, Christina Stead. I always feel like I need to disabuse them of the idea. Most don’t.
I do think, even today, that Australian cultural production isn’t taken seriously until it’s verified as important and good by America and the UK. I feel like having that opinion makes some Australians look at me like I’m a relic from a former time, because we were meant to have gotten over that in the 80s. But you go into that in the book so well: Ziggy’s friends are obsessed with America, it’s the “promised land” and a “reward” and it calls to them from all media platforms. There’s that scene where Lex tells Ziggy that the fata morgana she can see out on the ocean horizon is actually California. Australians all define ourselves so much, still, by what America, and to a lesser extent, the UK, think about us. But then I’m one to talk because I moved here.
LF: Exactly, that’s what I was just thinking. That idea of, it’s not real unless it’s happening in America. Like success isn’t success unless it’s happening in New York. I blame a lot of actors for this in the book. Oh, there are sand-flies. I had an unsuccessful tryst in California last week and I haven’t shaved my legs since. I feel too miserable about it.
BLVR: You went to California?
LF: To see if my ex and I could overcome all of our issues. If he had resolved his mother issues, and I had resolved my father issues, and if we could try.
BLVR: The one with the dogs?
BLVR: I’m sorry.
LF: It’s OK. I am just struggling to get my razor out and take care of business. So I apologize. And the sandflies seem to be having a really good time with my hairy legs.
BLVR: I actually can’t think of the last time I haven’t shaved my legs and that makes me really sad.
LF: How often do you do it?
BLVR: Like every time I shower.
LF: Wow. Every day? Approximately.
BLVR: Yeah, approximately. Hello!
[A very happy dog appears.]
LF: You look like you have a message for us. Is it about the Mueller investigation?
III. Welcome to My Home
BLVR: There’s something interesting about the way that, particularly in Sydney, private schools operate as the primary creator of social hierarchy in the rest of Australian life. To the extent that I know what private schools politicians went to, but I don’t know where anyone went to university. Whereas here, people primarily identify themselves by where they went to college.
LF: It’s so interesting and horrifying if you think about it. You have absolutely no choice, it’s your parents’ decision. You can’t put yourself into debt, sending yourself to a private school. Although maybe you should. I’ve been reading bell hooks’ book All About Love. In the beginning at least, the book is about being an advocate for children, because they’re the ones with the least rights. In the sense that we never question other peoples’ parenting because it’s rude and impolite. Whereas that’s where the most damage that can be done to a human being really happens. In the home, with the people who raise you. And nobody’s thinking about that. It’s such a tricky matrix of issues. Nobody wants to tell anyone how to love their children. But she’s arguing that we’re not having the right conversation about love, and love is a verb. Anyway, it makes sense to me. Early childhood is where the worst damage happens to everybody, and nobody’s interested in that. Because that can also help you deal with all the other traumas that await you in your life. I feel like I’m applying bell hooks’ theory to how all children should get to go to private schools. But my experience of private school was not all great.
BLVR: Where did you go?
LF: To ——-
BLVR: That’s what I thought.
LF: Yeah, I didn’t really disguise the name. But I had to for the Australian book, because they were worried they would be sued. So they made me change it to Leger, as in “light.” Instead of being started in a convent that was built into a cliff side, the school is in a lighthouse. But —— obviously attracts a very narrow band of people.
BLVR: I remember I went there once to play netball. Everyone was very nice.
LF: I guess I always experienced the “niceness” of those girls as a sort of benevolence, which they probably learned from the way their mothers treated housekeepers. It was more like that, than any actual feeling of kinship to a fellow human being. Like, “welcome to my home.”
BLVR: Well you said you didn’t have a good private school experience.
LF: I mean there was no trauma. It wasn’t a really bad experience. I didn’t have a lot of friends there. I found a lot of the other girls superficial, but I think I was also superficial. I definitely was. There was also a feeling I had of being one of only a few Jews—there were other Jews—and there was no anti-Semitism at that school at all, because, being in the Eastern Suburbs, there were Jews everywhere. But there was a sense that those old-money, WASPy, Eastern Suburbs girls were at the top of the food chain. There was a privileging of blandness. Anything that was too ethnic might taint things. It’s sounding very Nazi—which is why I have the Hitler Youth in the book—but there was a sense that nobody was at the top of the food chain because they were particularly brilliant or funny or creative or kind, it was because they weren’t going to rock the boat. You could feel that there were networks above you that you didn’t know about. They were tied into who was a member of this yacht club, and that golf course, and had a house here, and whose dads worked together at the same bank, and those people got invited to Malcolm Turnbull’s son’s pool parties. It was not something I ever fully understood. A lot of these girls were sort of…I guess they were pleasing to the eye. They were just so inoffensive.
BLVR: There’s something in the book about all the girls needing to have their hair straightened.
BLVR: And I remember that being a huge thing, the straightening of hair. The horror of disarray, or untidiness, or strangeness.
LF: You still see girls on Fifth Avenue—these leggy blonde people with little jean shorts and perfectly straightened hair. To me it feels like the “best” thing a woman can be is inoffensive—smooth and clean.
BLVR: Fake-tanned to the right degree, slim, hair dyed an innocuous dark blonde. Everything kind of caramel colored.
LF: Yes! Soft pastel colors, or light denim and beige. Then you see teenagers in New York and they’re more interested in looking as different as possible. But I also feel suspicious of the emphasis on individualism that happens here. Obviously there’s a good chance that a kid who has green hair is a little bit more in tune with different ways of thinking about the world, or they’re interested in non-conformity, so that’s a great step in the right direction compared to these girls with the straight hair outside Forever 21. I don’t want to generalize, but you can sort of tell that they’re not thinking too much about nonconformity. The idea of the individual can be so limiting here. There’s so many ways for us to be without conforming, but it doesn’t all have to be about our individual needs or likes. It can be so superficial. How will Americans ever truly be socialists?
IV. Dangerous and Risky Things
BLVR: There’s a way we now talk about desire and wanting, which I think is related to the current political climate. We demand so much of people on a micro-level. But we fail, every one of us does, because the body is an imperfect site for ideology. Desire is so private and specific and individual, but it can be difficult to grapple with those desires honestly if they’re ideologically imperfect. Marx gets left out of the socialist feminism, and what you’re left with is the expression of one’s own individuality, and the policing of other people’s individuality, such that there is no real idea of a collective, there’s no idea of affinities with other people.
LF: Exactly. I feel like those are exactly the tensions I was trying to explore, and I feel like what you just said about the body as an imperfect site for an exploration of ideology—that’s exactly it. Queer literature has been outstanding at acknowledging that, and making it the project. There are so many writers I can think of who are invested in this project of dismantling ideology via the queer body and via the impossibility of making clear definitions. It’s funny that you have that incredible tradition in literature and then you have what’s happening in identity politics right now, which is such a simplification of these impossible categories that are so porous, so that they can be sold to us via Instagram or whatever. Obviously there are good political reasons why you’d want to simplify things, but there’s a lot of shutting the conversation down before it even gets started, before it even gets interesting, because there’s so much anxiety. And the anxiety is understandable. There’s so much anxiety around exclusion, or offending anyone. We all have those moments as writers where something pisses you off and you go and journal, and you look back and you say “oh shit, I can’t say that.” I don’t want to ever be writing from that place—of anger and vindictiveness—but to be writing from a place of curiosity. I’m sure there are places where I have blind spots, and obviously the book is going to make people uncomfortable in various places for different reasons. Do you like Michel Houellebecq?
BLVR: I’ve only read The Elementary Particles, back when I was in high school. Other than that, no, but obviously he upsets people.
LF: I’ve always found him really exciting as a writer because he’s saying very dangerous risky things that feel true in a way that I don’t necessarily like. There’s some kernel of truth, and I think he’s doing it in an artful way that deserves our attention. I feel like there’s value in doing that, even if it’s imperfect and even if it is going to rile some people up.
BLVR: Have you had people being riled up by the book?
LF: Well no, I think I was very paranoid about it. Obviously the whole book is an exercise in testing the limits, so there’s a wink in every joke. I would understand people being offended by it, but I think you would be missing the whole project in a sense. I feel like it’s better to be judged on the spirit of your book, rather than trying to account for every single word, or every single phrase that might be misconstrued. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. Like, I really like Hannah Gadsby, but she’s been a bit of a downer the last few weeks. I mean I do really respect what she’s doing, but I do worry. She says that the one-two punch of the joke, the punch-line, is cruel. I think when you’re telling stories you have more space. You can make your jokes, but then you want to give that character a full experience. I don’t want to be someone who’s getting too censorious about which jokes are made and who’s allowed to make them, but ultimately I think it has a lot to do with your intention, and what you’re trying to do with the jokes, and if it’s just to entertain and get people to laugh, then that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to be hurting anybody.
I was watching Bruno last night—I’ve watched many clips of it over the years but I’ve never watched the whole thing. And it’s horrifically homophobic. Yet I guess in defense of it, if I were to defend it, I would say that he is making a lot of homophobic jokes, but he’s also interested in a culture of vanity and narcissism. He’s using the character to point to the vapidness that’s infected the culture. Obviously looking at it now it doesn’t feel OK. But he’s presenting this character who has an arc, he shows us his vulnerability, and we end up being on his side, not the homophobic peoples’ side, and we see how crazy it is that all these public figures are so terrified of homosexual men when we can see how actually harmless he is. There are all these things that he’s doing which you could say are helpful in some ways. But if I was a gay man watching that, I would feel pretty terrible about it. So I don’t know what the answer is and I guess I feel nervous. Oh, oh, a Bernese mountain dog has just entered the dog run. Oh shit. This is my favorite dog. It was very hard for me not to put my two Bernese mountain dogs into the book. They were my pets as a kid. Hi! Oh shit. Wow. Such a great dog. He’s got balls. Yes he does. Wow. He’s gonna hump something.
V. Bernese Mountain Dog as Metaphor
BLVR: There are so many allusions to categories in the book, the need for definition around borders and boundaries. It’s all taking place in a political moment, here and in Australia as well, when they’re trying to create a border wall. Well, Australia doesn’t have land borders so we ship people out to offshore detention centers, but it amounts to the same feeling. There is a maniacal need in both countries to assert who is in and who is out.
LF: Exactly. You want to delineate between a white woman’s experience and a queer woman of color’s experience, and that does seem important, but then you also want open borders, and for there to be global citizenship and inclusivity. How do we start to talk about what that means for identity? I think people are thinking about it, but there’s no sense of what it really means to open the borders and provide universal health care to everyone, and grappling with questions like that is so enormous. Oh, are you seeing that tiny dog humping that Bernese Mountain dog?
BLVR: Oh wow.
LF: Maybe that’s a metaphor for what I’m trying to say. I feel like the left is that little dog, trying to hump this enormous problem of globalization and how we provide everyone with health care. There are so many things about it that are complicated. It feels like it’s great territory for exploring in fiction because it’s so complex and hilarious. It’s so human and absurd, and we should be able to talk about it.
[A bulldog strolls by, wearing a bandana.]
Hi. Aw, he looks like an ex-boyfriend I had. He really does.
BLVR: He’s got warts on his stomach
LF: Are they teats? Oh no, he has a penis.
BLVR: That’s a man’s dog. Those are baseballs on the bandana.
LF: Wow. I love this place. There’s just so much life here. But, oh shit, it’s seven o’clock. We’ve been here three hours. I think we should announce that we’re leaving. [We stand up, walk to the gate, turn, and wave to the dog park.] So long everyone, thank you.